Magazine Music Writer War: The New Yorker Vs. Playboy

If you’re anywhere near the Internet, you’ve likely heard (or read) that music critic and Ui founder Sasha Frere-Jones wrote a long essay titled “A Paler Shade of White” in last week’s New Yorker, and that it’s rubbed all sorts of folks the wrong way. In it, Frere-Jones uses Arcade Fire as a starting point for looking into — as the article’s subtitled — “how indie rock lost its soul” (this has nothing to do with “rock being dead,” kids … or, wait, does it?). After the piece ran, an uproar ensued, with various folks weighing in variously from Idolator, to the Village Voice, ILM (the thread grows daily), good ol’ Simon Reynolds, and etc.

A couple days into the dialogue Sasha-Frere responded at the New Yorker’s blog, addressing some of the charges/questions.

Questions on my musical-miscegenation article?they?re already coming. Hasn?t indie become more rhythmic in the last five years? Aren?t there a host of reasons?most of them not related to race?that white musicians might avoid playing hip-hop? Where are you drawing the lines between rock, indie rock, and all other forms of pop? Is indie, in part, a return to a pre-rock version of pop? Is there really a problem here? What if we never have another Clash? We have M.I.A. and the Hives and Lil Wayne and Fountains of Wayne and Gogol Bordello and R. Kelly and so on?why does anything need to be combined? Is syncopation (or any single variable) really what?s missing from ?Yankee Hotel Foxtrot?? Isn?t some of this simply a question of preferences? Are you really crazy enough to think that Hall & Oates and Michael Jackson are ?equally gifted?? And what are some examples of miscegenated music?

I can think of ten others, the most pressing being: What is the social implication of combining (or not combining) certain forms? But we have to start somewhere. Regarding Hall & Oates: my ?equally? was slightly mischievous, a little like brushing a batter back. I wanted to make a case for the group?who doesn?t love ?I Can?t Go for That (No Can Do)???but also to reinforce the idea that what I?m talking about is a largely formal, musical thing, and that once it has been unleashed the form belongs to whoever pulls it off most convincingly. Who is a better Michael Jackson now, Chris Brown or Justin Timberlake? And what happens when Usher comes back?

He then goes on to offer four examples of “miscegenated music”: Led Zeppelin’s “Custard Pie,” OutKast’s ?Bombs Over Baghdad,? Prince’s “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man,” and Miles Davis’s “On The Corner.”

We’d thought the hubbub had died down and were ready to let it go, but then bam! the most entertainingly thorough and smartly argued response to Frere-Jones’s initial essay we’ve read showed up today on Playboy’s blog (thanks for the tip, Ningun). In “Paint It Black,” the author, staff editor Tim Mohr, calls Frere-Jones a jackass, among other things. A few of our favorite tidbits after the white-men-can’t jump.


[photo by Piera Gelardi/Refinery29]

Love that he’s wearing a Sunn O))) Black One t-shirt in the photo provided at his site. Oh, irony! Or something.

Via Playblog:

Frere-Jones? argument is predicated on two bullshit dichotomies. Early in his essay he describes how ?Elvis Presley stole the world away from Pat Boone and moved popular music from the head to the hips.? There are two glaring problems with this assessment. First it subscribes to the age-old notion that mind and body represent opposing forces, the idea that intellectual urges and sexual urges are mutually contradictory and thus forever locked in a Manichean battle for the souls of teenage pop music listeners. It should go without saying in this day and age that this notion is rubbish: The desire to read and the desire to fuck live comfortably side by side in many well-adjusted teens of both sexes.

Worse still, Frere-Jones ascribes racial attributes to the two sides of this outmoded dichotomy: Mind is white, body black. Thus, to Frere-Jones, the Arcade Fire (?the drummer and the bassist rarely played syncopated patterns or lingered in the low registers?) is pedantic, sexless and indicative of whiteness, while Mick Jagger (?He sang with weird menace and charm?) is lusty, soulful and indicative of blackness?or rather, in his parlance, miscegenation. Frere-Jones even discusses Jagger?s dancing!

…Frere-Jones also ignores?whether willfully or not?huge swaths of indiedom that might undermine the particulars of his premise. In fact, even the band he uses to set off the entire discussion, Arcade Fire, seems a poor choice. Arcade Fire?s sound is a dead-ringer for that of the Talking Heads; the distinguishing aspect of the Talking Heads was their study of, enthusiasm for, and use of African polyrhythm and percussion. Hardly the best example of a band bleaching the black out of its influences.

…Frere-Jones skips the rise of dance-oriented indie genres such as Big Beat (Fatboy Slim, Chemical Brothers) and Electroclash (Peaches, Miss Kittin). He passes over the showmanship of the Britpop movement (Blur, Suede, Pulp), a scene in which fashion, haircut and personality played nearly as much importance as hook, melody and beat. The blues riffs of the White Stripes, Black Keys and Cold War Kids must have escaped his attention. He misses the melding of indie and hip-hop that produced the trip-hop phenomenon. LCD Soundsystem and the DFA, Le Tigre, Daft Punk, the neo-Stax sound of Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson?all go unnoticed by Frere-Jones. He must also not be familiar with a currently booming strand of indie typified by Calvin Harris, Simian Mobile Disco, Chromeo, MSTRKRFT, New Young Pony Club and others?syncopated, bass-heavy, electro-fried indie dance music that he might encounter in all the indie clubs where kids?newsflash?shake their asses (sorry?hips) to this stuff.

So what has Frere-Jones been listening to? It?s difficult to say. But one thing is clear: Frere-Jones beats up on a mere straw man in this piece. His arbitrary definition of indie?white guitar bands descended from the Beach Boys rather than the blues?is a make-believe genre from which he has already eliminated anything he sees as black-influenced music, making his criticism of it as not sufficiently black absurd. Only when he forces this twee subgenre of his own creation to stand in for the broad totality of indie can he make his argument at all, and even then it must be made with obnoxious insinuations based on an embarrassing set of racial and sexual anachronisms. Since his stock in trade is calling other people names?he famously branded Stephin Merritt a racist because Merritt published a list of his favorite musicians of the 20th century in Time Out New York without, Frere-Jones insisted, a sufficient number of black artists on it?Frere-Jones? alarming lack of self-awareness must not be laughed off or excused. With this piece Frere-Jones has demonstrated himself every bit the racist?for buying into this pathetically regressive set of ideas?as any 1950s Southern preacher who decried white interest in animalistic, vulgar race music. That Frere-Jones? delineates and fetishizes the other?this carnal, black backbeat, this jungle sexuality he insists on placing in contradiction to cerebral, ?oblique,? ?flat-footed,? white rock?should damn him alongside those who delineate and vilify the other; both visions assign the same traits to blackness.

Perhaps Frere-Jones should spend less time trying to reconcile his white singing with the would-be black funk of his (all-white) band, and a little more time poking around indie clubs, where his shameful philosophical starting point was discredited so long ago that his current epiphanies sound like unwelcome posts from a time machine. He needs to get on with it?read a book, have a dance, sex it up once on a while. None of those things will make him any whiter or blacker than he is; alas none will make him any less a jackass, either.

Damn! We don’t have much to add to that, but are curious to see where this goes next. Imagine it’s the first time in a while some folks have bothered picking up a copy of the New Yorker for anything beyond the unfunny comics. Actually, we read it every week … love that motherfucking Talk Of The Town section!